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By nancy matsumoto I Photography by Scott Gordon Bleicher
gastronome with a pitchfork
Farmer Rick Bishop tirelessly sells the Hudson Valley to NYC
Rick Bishop makes a stand at the Union Square Green Market.
ick Bishop’s small stall on the western edge of the Union Square Green Market in Manhattan, sandwiched between a wheatgrass vendor and a conventional produce grower, is easy to miss. This is where, on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, you might spot a sign that reads “Mountain Sweet Berry Farm,” and, nearby, Bishop’s weather-beaten burgundy van. Yet this is also where some of the market’s most highly coveted produce passes from farmer to customer. Quite often the customer on the receiving end of this transaction is a cook from one of Manhattan’s storied kitchens: Gramercy Tavern, Per Se, Hearth, Jean Georges, wd~50. Although it is the chefs who are celebrated for their technique, their taste and their artistry, some will tell you that the real star is Bishop, the soil-science wizard who can grow just about anything on his 35acre organic farm in Roscoe, New York, and pack it full of flavor. The chefs are tough taskmasters. As soon as chef and restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who sends his chefs to Bishop for produce, notices the tiniest decline in quality in the petit pois, he drops them from the menu. Chef Daniel Boulud insisted the fingerling potato Bishop was growing was not “the true la ratte” potato of his hometown Lyon. Only after Bishop got his hands on a Lyonnaise potato clone was Boulud satisfied. Marco Canora of Hearth requested that his potatoes be exactly an inch-and-a-half long and four different colors. When Kurt Gutenbrunner’s wild arugula was not exactly four inches long, the Wallse chef gave Bishop a ruler as halfjoking rebuke. The chefs, says Bishop, “bust my ass,” but, in return for Bishop’s habit of delivering the best, they give him their undying loyalty and admiration. With the large exception of the Beaverkill Valley Inn in Sullivan County’s Lew Beach, all of Bishop’s crops are sold in Manhattan. “The amount of labor we put into each of these specialty crops means that they have to go to Manhattan, where we can command the prices it takes,” explains Bishop, 51.
Bishop selling potatoes back in the 80s.
“In many ways he resembles a Viking,” says wd~50 chef Wylie Dufresne, “with leathery hands, a bonecrushing handshake and this infectious nature.”
Bishop is a tall, energetic engine of charisma, the kind of guy who friends say can work a 12-hour day, take in a rock concert until 2:00 a.m. and show up bright-eyed at 6:00 a.m. for breakfast, with gas in the tank. “In many ways he resembles a Viking,” says wd~50 chef Wylie Dufresne, “with leathery hands, a bone-crushing handshake and this infectious nature.” The young farmer first took the greenmarket by storm in 1985, when he and his roommate from Cornell’s agriculture school, Gerald Posner, with funding from Posner’s family, introduced the Tri-Star strawberry. They had jumped on the breed several years before, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture strawberry-breeding program in Beltsville, Maryland, released this brandnew variety in 1981, after 20 years of development, and introduced it at Cornell. Called the “Tri-Star” because it grew over three seasons, spring, summer and fall, the berry thrives in a cool mountainous climate with limited daylight hours, perfect for Ithaca and, later, Bishop’s farm in the Catskills. It was small and delicate, and retained all 51 aromatic compounds of the wild strawberry. (Thanks to instruments such as high-tech gas chromatography-mass spectrometry machines, each one of those compounds can be easily graphed.) The intensity of its aroma and flavor immediately attracted the attention of chefs. It was the time of what Bishop calls the “French revolution,” when “Daniel [Boulud] and Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] were coming to town,” recalls Bishop. The Gallic advance guard went nuts over the berries, which put them in mind of the fraises des bois of their homeland. Suddenly, Bishop’s answering machine was filled with French accents, he recalls, channeling their voices: “‘This is Didier,’ ‘this is Pierre,’ ‘this is Thierry,’ all ordering flats of Tri-Stars. Fieldwork Each year, I Trulli chef Patti Jackson comes to Roscoe to forage for ramps and other wild delicacies with Bishop, who sometimes uses Google Earth to locate prime patches. “Rick’s a master, he knows all the plant things around him, and every bend in the river,” says Jackson. In spring, one of Bishop’s favorite locations to forage for fiddlehead ferns, ramps and watercress is on the close to 6,000 acres of edible hudson valley
Our Man in the Field “We tend to forget that farmers are the true arbiters of taste,” says Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill, “and “Rick’s the chief curator.” Barber notes that Bishop, although he affects the farmer’s rough edges (he claims he couldn’t dine at the upscale Bouley Restaurant in Tribeca for ages because he didn’t own a suit), is a “gastronome with a very educated palate,” who is led by flavor. “There’s a compelling argument to be made that he’s a chef, and he’s writing a recipe before I start writing mine,” says Barber. “He’s the kind of farmer who makes chefs like me look better than we are.” Chef David Bouley, one of Bishop’s earliest champions in the mid-’80s, was so impressed with Bishop’s farming expertise and his Ruby Crescent fingerling potatoes that he invested upward of $20,000 so Bishop and his then-wife Franca Tantillo could develop certified Peruvian potato seed stock and build up the soil used to grow them. Three years later Bishop was harvesting over 20,000 pounds of the coveted Peruvian fingerlings for Bouley. “Then madness happened, and now there are fingerlings everywhere,” says Bouley, who recalls combing through seed catalogs with Bishop and making watercress and trout salad with the bounty they foraged from Bishop’s fertile land. Not everyone in line is a chef. Stockbroker Ernie Raab tries to buy most of his food at the greenmarket and says “the real tip-off ” to how good Bishop’s produce is the fact that a line can form as early as 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday. “People wait 20, 30 minutes,” he says.
Some of Bishop’s devoted culinary clientele, from left: Wylie Dufresne of wd~50, Bill Telepan of Telepan Restaurant, and Marco Canora of Hearth.
nearby hunt club land that he has access to. One of the clubs, he says, just asks in return that he keep its kitchen supplied with German butterball potatoes. In summer, he hunts for wild blueberries, and his fields teem with fino verde basil, French leeks, wild arugula, baby chard, petit pois, flageolet and cannellini beans, among many other crops. At one time Bishop raised delicious brook trout that the chefs at Bouley still recall wistfully, but he gave that up long ago. “You can’t imagine all the predators, and all the forces of natures you have to fight it out with when you’re raising something as delicious, expensive and slow growing as brook trout,” he says. “He’s a fun, rockin’ dude,” says longtime customer Bill Telepan, who first encountered Bishop when he was sous-chef at Gotham Bar and Grill in the early ’90s. “He had great stuff, was a brilliant farmer and had all this energy.” At Telepan’s behest, Bishop began to grow scarlet runner beans, which the chef stocks up on during the summer, freezing them for the winter use at his eponymous Upper West Side restaurant. Telepan recalls an ill-fated farm country field trip, during which the bus kept breaking down and a three-hour drive turned into a five-anda-half hour nightmare. By the time they arrived at their first farm, his staff was in no mood to listen to a presentation on pastured veal. Bishop saved the day by locating a tractor and “lifting everyone’s spirits with a hayride up the hill and a fire-roasted lamb,” recalls Telepan. “It was the first time I tasted Ommegang beer. Rick’s really into local products, not just what he does, but what everybody does in the area.” In fact, Bishop tries hard to deflect attention away from himself and what he calls “the romance of farm-to-restaurant relationships” to what he says are the more important “real-life stories of the struggle of coming to greenmarket, selling to chefs and raising laborintensive crops and livestock.” Stories about the resilience it takes when “Kenny Migliorelli’s six-inch irrigation line breaks at 2:00
a.m.,” for example, or the time “John Gorzynski’s fields were ravaged by flooding, or the endless disease, weed, bug and worm damage that organic farmers must battle.” There are also the punishingly long hours that the farmers keep on market days. “You start out at three in the morning,” says Bishop. “Sometimes I sell out early, so I can get home by five, six or seven at night. But Alex Paffenroth [a fellow farmer at the Union Square Green Market], he’s got a big display, he’s probably not getting home until nine or ten o’clock at night.” Bishop also pauses a moment to pay loving tribute to the late Alvina Frey, the third-generation Ramsey, New Jersey, farmer and green market pioneer who wowed chef and civilian alike with her haricots verts, squash blossoms and gooseberries for 20 years before conceding to age and the inexorable development of Bergen County. Frey threatened to quit farming for years, Bishop recalls, and instructed him on which crops to grow so he could “take over the market” when she retired. “When they sold the farm, the bulldozers were right on the stone wall just waiting to come in on her farmland,” he adds. “After she finally did sell the property, she invited me to come over and kind of sit at her feet and learn some of her techniques,” Bishop recalls. Frey taught Bishop “really practical things, like when you raise squash for squash blossoms, as soon as you see the first blossom, plant the next planting,” to keep a steady supply for market. Frey passed away in January 2010. Bishop’s concern for the fate of all small farmers in the region brings us to another aspect of his life: his deep roots in the agricultural communities of New York. His first “real job” working for someone else was with a New York City Department of Environmental Protection program to protect the quality of the state’s drinking water by providing agricultural economic stimulus to watershed communities. “I’d just had my second baby in 1996 and I had to cut my hair for the second job interview,” he recalls. He
“There’s a compelling argument to be made that he’s a chef, and he’s writing a recipe before I start writing mine,” says Dan Barber
nuity play a part, too. Years ago, Dufresne recalls asking a then-longhaired Bishop, who would show up at midnight to deliver his produce, “Aren’t you tired?” Bishop explained his method of staying awake while on the road: “I roll the window up on my hair. That way, if I nod off, it’ll wake me up.” When he’s not selling kick-ass vegetables or explaining what it means to be a humane provider of foie gras, says Yanay, Bishop snowboards down vertical mountains, hang glides for hours at a stretch, climbs rocks and flies planes. What makes these stories especially notable is that Bishop’s “more than full-time job” with HVFG is what he considers the “day job” that funds his central passion, farming. He’s able to hold it all together, says Bishop, because of the people he works with. He found his first talented crew of half a dozen Guatemalan workers back in 1986 through the Orange County department of labor. Since then, numerous brothers, cousins and uncles have all cycled through the crew. “I’ll show them the haricots verts, lay them out in a bundle, and say, “They can’t be any bigger than this, or baby beets have to be this big, and shelling beans have to be this ripe,” says Bishop. “They just take those back out in the field. They don’t fail me. They’re farmers by nature and they’re just really good at growing and caring for things,” he says, adding, “That’s what it takes, a good crew—they are my family.” Wife Nicole is in charge of sourcing seeds and developing new chef-driven products, and she, along with Bishop’s daughters Micaela, 15, and Allie, 18, works at the greenmarket as well. When Barber wanted Bishop to grow celtuce, a cross between celery and lettuce, it was Nicole who found the seeds, just as she did when Michael White (Ai Fiori, Osteria Morini), returned from Italy hankering for locally grown spigarello broccoli. White prizes the vegetable for its “really nice peppery finish and great texture.” Because Bishop’s spigarello is so good, White advocates a “less is more” approach of braising it and serving it with “a few shavings of [ricotta] salata and cracked white pepper.” Come harvest time, though, Bishop’s focus is on the farm, where he puts in 12- to 16-hour days. “You want to keep a divorce attorney on retainer through the month of May,” he says, “because it gets to a point where the nights and days just run into each other.” Three Seeds and Three Catfish to Grow a Livelihood Bishop found his calling early. When he was eight or nine, growing up in Poughkeepsie, his teacher told the class the story of how Native American Indians taught the starving Pilgrims how to grow food. “I didn’t want to starve,” recalls Bishop. “I was fired up about planting corn the way the Indians taught the pilgrims: bury three fish, and put in three seeds, one for the crow, one for the Indian, and one for the worm.” He stripped corn kernels off an ear from his neighbor’s field, and, per the legend, buried three seeds with three catfish in little hills. Giant stalks of corn shot up, but Bishop noticed that they looked different from each other. His neighbor explained that this was because the kernels were from a hybrid ear, resulting in different genetic expressions. “I was totally intrigued by this,” recalls Bishop. “Hybrids! I started looking at seed catalogs, learning about hybrids, and tried to make a bigger and bigger garden until there was no more room, no more lawn.” edible hudson valley
worked on the project for three years, helping dairy farmers transition to more watershed-friendly practices. “At one point, we had a cooperative of about 35 growers in the watershed area,” he recalls. In return for turning to best management practices, he helped the growers with marketing and production programs, developing specialty meat and vegetable products suitable for the Catskills climate. Momofuku chef David Chang calls Bishop a “Johnny Appleseed” for propagating not just produce, but the seeds of relationships between farming and chef communities, and teaching farming to chefs. He credits Bishop for introducing him to pig supplier Hilly Acres Farm and showing his staff members how to pick ramps. “When you see someone who’s as dedicated as he is to working not just with New York City, but the community he farms in, why wouldn’t you want to support that?” says Chang. “Rick does it better than anyone.” In 2006, to help address the major farm-to-table bottleneck in the region due to its lack of slaughterhouses, Bishop, working as an agricultural economic developer for Sullivan County, headed an effort to build a humane slaughterhouse in Liberty, New York. For the past three years, Bishop’s day job has been as marketing director at Hudson Valley Foie Gras. HVFG co-owner Izzy Yanay describes Bishop as a cross between Steve Jobs and Indiana Jones: a brilliant marketer and adventurer who has identified new directions for the company, crisscrosses the country to educate customers and culinary students, and can run every other employee into the ground. “Rick is a very unusual individual,” says Yanay. He can go a week without sleeping, from morning to night and not even feel it…his energy is limitless.” On one marketing trip, Bishop was running late to the airport and crashed his car. “The vehicle had completely disintegrated,” reports Yanay. “It was lying in pieces in Queens, but Rick somehow made it to LaGuardia and on his flight.” It’s not just high energy that keeps Bishop going; sheer determination and inge-
Momofuku chef David Chang calls Bishop a “Johnny Appleseed” for propagating not just produce, but the seeds of relationships between farming and chef communities, and teaching farming to chefs.
The family, including Bishop’s brother and sister, moved to Youngsville, New York for a spell, and lived there until Bishop’s parents embarked on a three-year period of homesteading, first in Tennessee and then in Missouri. His father continued his work as a truck driver, and his mother worked as a seamstress, but their dreams of living off the land did not pan out. “We practically starved to death,” recalls Bishop, and if it wasn’t for our garden, we would have.” To supplement the family income, Bishop dropped out of world.” High-quality produce would sell itself, he taught Bishop, and to grow for flavor, you had to build up your soil. Today, Bishop uses “a ton of compost” but also soft rock phosphate, an ocean mineral called “aragonite,” granite dust and a slew of other minerals. He also relies on a device called a “refractometer” to take brix, or sugar, readings of his produce—the more mineralized the soil, the more flavorful the produce, and the higher the brix reading and therefore the sugar content—that help guide soil mineralization and irrigation patterns. Bishop, who had passed the GED test, studied biochemistry for three years at Minnesota State, then was accepted into his dream program at Cornell’s agriculture college. Arriving there in 1982, he bucked the prevailing dogma of every agricultural school at the time, which, he says, was all about “efficiency, higher yield, and shipping characteristics” of farmed produce. If the grapes were planted too close, you just sprayed them, they had a cure for everything; that’s how we were being taught,” he recalls. In that environment, Bishop and Posner stood out. “We’d be in the back row going, ‘radicchio!’ cutting up and making noise,” he says. “No one was really concerned about flavor.” As a student of Doc Reams, what Bishop cared about most was flavor, and when he began selling his products, the market responded. “Chef after chef would come and say, ‘I don’t know what it is, but these just taste better, they don’t wilt and rot, they’re crisp and fresh,’” says Bishop. *** ninth grade to cut cordwood for charcoal kilns. It was not fun, but he says with a shrug, “It’s what makes you who you are, you know?” After the family returned to Sullivan County, Bishop took charge of the family’s two-acre garden and began selling his produce to local organic stores. It was the mid-’70s, and he was enthralled with the organic gardening literature that the Rodale Institute was then publishing. The institute was founded in 1947 by the country’s leading organic farming proselytizer, J. I. Rodale, who criticized chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and presciently asserted that they were depleting our soil of nutrients. Much like the story of the Pilgrims, the fish and the corn, these ideas—and the process of enriching, growing and feeding people— captured Bishop’s imagination. He had found his passion and to explore it further bought his own laboratory for soil testing. By chance, the man who owned the land the family lived on, a chiropractor named John Gerath, was interested in the theories of agronomist, physician and healer Dr. Carey Reams. Gerath took an interest in the talented young farmer, buying him books and sending him to Reams’s seminars in Roanoke, Virginia. Reams became Bishop’s mentor. Reams worked in soil science, and believed ardently in the importance of enriched soil as the basis for health-giving food and good health. One of his mottos was, “Farmers are the best doctors in the
What Bishop would really like to do if he ever sits still for more than 30 minutes is teach and encourage young farmers to enter the field. Although, he says, “I learned more from other farmers than I ever learned at college,” he adds, “college, the internet, it’s all great.” His advice: “Build up the soil, source the seeds, build relationships with chefs and farmers’ markets, grow good quality and be optimistic. I’m so optimistic I’ve run out of gas more times than I want to admit…. You’re not going to get rich doing this, but you know what? There’s a satisfaction, and there’s good eatin’ and it’s involving, it’s constantly changing. And,” he adds, “there’s snowboarding in the winter.” Although Bishop fields enough chef demand to not have to sell to the public twice a week, to him, this part of his business is “the best feedback and the best reward.” Chefs get lauded when they cook his food, he notes, but it’s the little old ladies who taste his strawberries and say, “‘This is how a strawberry is supposed to taste. Now you’ve got it, sonny!’” who give him the most satisfaction. Based on the sizeable amount of Rick Bishop folklore out there, it seems there’s virtually nothing he can’t grow. So it comes as a surprise when, asked if there are crops he has yet to conquer, he immediately replies, “Mâche! It’s French and I love it, but it evades me. I grow a lot of things but I can’t get this mâche thing down!” With a note of certainty, he adds, “I’m going to figure it out, though.”